Can 'No' be positive and 'Yes' be negative? A lesson from Chile

Can 'No' be positive and 'Yes' be negative? A lesson from Chile

by David Torrance
article from Monday 11, February, 2013

IS THERE SUCH a thing as referendumitis? Sometimes I fear I might be coming down with it. Not only do I live and breath one referendum (Scotland) on a daily basis, but the Prime Minister recently added a second to the mix (Europe), and now I’ve even started watching films about referendums in other countries.

Pablo Larraín’s “No” makes the 1988 plebiscite in Chile – contrived to give General Pinochet another eight years in power – appear fun as well as a game-changing moment in modern South American history. It also highlights the difficulty a “no” campaign has in conducting a positive campaign.

Initially, the No campaign leaders – mostly those on the Left – want to focus on images of torture and repression under the military dictatorship. Too negative, argues a young (fictional) advertising executive called René Saavedra, who eschews angry political images in favour of an upbeat, almost apolitical vision of happiness and the future.

Combined with a hummable song, the No campaign achieves the seemingly impossible task of removing Pinochet from power via the ballot box. Of course, it was a lot more complicated than that, but the film will delight those on the Yes Scotland campaign, who have long argued that a truly positive campaign will always trump a negative one.

Of course, as with Chile twenty-five years ago, it ain’t that simple. Scotland’s No campaign (Better Together) started positively – both in terms of its literature and speeches – but has since lapsed into much more negative rhetoric. I’ve always maintained it’s possible to combine both. Indeed, the ostensibly positive Yes Scotland campaign utilizes its share of negativity, conjuring up images of doom and gloom should Scots vote “no”.

This weekend David Cameron made an effort to nudge the Better Together campaign back onto more upbeat territory. In a statement published on the 10 Downing Street website (largely recycled from his 2012 Edinburgh speech), the PM stressed “heart and head”, the “proud and emotional” history of Scotland and England, and the usual stuff about “deep, unbreakable bonds between the peoples of these islands”.

It also includes an interesting shift in tone. Cameron has said before that he accepts an independent Scotland could survive as an independent state (in an attempt to shut down SNP claims to the contrary), now he’s saying he has “no time for those who say there is no way Scotland could go it alone”. The statement also includes a tacit acknowledgement that ongoing welfare reforms might be undermining the Better Together argument (my italics):

“Of course there are difficult challenges to face and tough choices to make. There always are – in government and in our everyday lives. These wouldn’t disappear if Scotland broke apart from the UK. But those arguing for separation want to force you to make another choice – to choose between Scotland and Britain. I say why should you be forced to make that choice?”

Devolution, continues the PM’s argument, “offers the best of both worlds”, and apart from a pop at the Scottish Government’s recent post-independence timetable (“It’s like fast-forwarding to the closing credits before you’ve been allowed to see the movie”), Cameron’s Downing Street statement is broadly positive in tone; respectful of the opposing side and upbeat in the UK’s defence.

Nevertheless, and perhaps predictably, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon dismissed it as “an entirely negative attack”, for that is how the SNP has chosen to portray anything the Prime Minister says. There appears to be a firm belief in the Yes camp that Cameron is a liability north of the border, although I’m not sure the polling evidence backs that up.

These exchanges were the precursor to today’s publication of two reports in the ongoing propaganda war, a veritable battle of the experts. “We don’t shy away from putting facts and evidence before the Scottish people,” said Cameron (in another sly dig at his opponents). “We want you to scrutinise, challenge and form your own opinion.”

So from the UK Government we have a detailed legal opinion from two international experts (dismissed as “breathtaking arrogance” by the Deputy First Minister) that makes it clear the remainder of the UK (in the event of independence) would constitute the successor state. The point is to underline the European Commission’s (repeated) statement that an independent Scotland would constitute a “new state” and thus have to apply for EU membership.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government’s Fiscal Commission (which includes Nobel-prize winner Joseph Stiglitz) will argue that both rUK and an independent Scotland would benefit from sharing Sterling following a “yes” vote. Commission chairman Crawford Beveridge said: “Scotland’s economy is strong enough and sufficiently aligned with the rest of the UK that a separate currency would not be necessary.”

Although this jars a little (indeed, Labour has dubbed it “a good case for the union”), the SNP is underlining its argument that far from producing uncertainty, independence would retain the best features of the status quo (Sterling, the Queen, etc) while giving Scotland the “maximum degree” of policy choices to boost economic growth.

So are these two reports positive or negative? In truth, they’re a bit of both. The UK Government’s legal advice stresses the benefits of Scotland remaining part of the Union (positive) by setting out the legal consequences of independence (negative), while the Fiscal Commission points to the prospect of greater growth via independence (positive) while implying a “no” vote would deprive Scotland of that prospect (negative).

In the movie “No” the Yes campaign moves from positive (Chile is booming under Pinochet) to negative (the No campaigners are communists and terrorists) while the No campaign maintains a broadly positive outlook with some negative subtexts (Pinochet killed lots of people). Even the might of a military dictatorship finds the latter message difficult to combat. The SNP must be hoping for a similar dynamic over the next year or so.

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